Eleanor HallEleanor Hall hosts The World Today's lunch hour of current affairs, with background and debate from Australia and the world. Monday to Friday, 12:10pm, ABC Local Radio and Radio National.

Correspondents ReportCorrespondents Report

More Current Affairs:



You can also listen to the story in REAL AUDIO and WINDOWS MEDIA and MP3 formats.

Insider's story sheds new light on naval disaster


The World Today - Wednesday, 10 August , 2005  12:26:00

Reporter: Eleanor Hall

ELEANOR HALL: Back to Australia now, to a chilling insider's view of Australia's worst peacetime naval disaster, the collision between HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Voyager more than forty years ago.

PROGRAM PRESENTER (archival): On February the 10th, 1964 following a collision with HMAS Melbourne, 82 men of the Voyager lost their lives.

The Voyager on the right and the aircraft carrier Melbourne were performing a manoeuvre referred to as 'turning together'. A Royal Commission later found that the destroyer, unaccountably, had made a tighter turn than ordered, which brought her directly into the path of the Melbourne.

VOX POP 1: Yes, a tremendous impact. I didn't know at all what it was at the time.

VOX POP 2: Of course all the lights went out and then she was really topsy turvy, things going everywhere.

VOX POP 1: I decided the best idea was to swim to the surface of the water level.

VOX POP 2: Someone yelled out, "Here's the escape hatch up here." And we crawled up the wall to it.

ELEANOR HALL: Peter Cabban was not on the Voyager that day. The former Second in Command had resigned from the Navy just five weeks earlier, having reached the conclusion that the Voyager's captain was unfit to command, but he's carried a sense of guilt about the accident for almost half a century.

Yet it was only through Peter Cabban's courageous determination to oppose the dominant culture in the navy and expose what really lay behind the collision, that at least some of the truth behind the diaster emerged.

While the first Royal Commission into the collision put most of the blame on the Captain of the Melbourne, Peter Cabban prompted an unprecedented second Royal Commission with his evidence that the Captain of the Voyager, Duncan Stevens, was drunk at the time of the crash and he's now written an extraordinary account of that time called Breaking Ranks: the true story behind the Voyager scandal.

Being a whistle-blower was a gruelling experience and one Mr Cabban says he would not wish on anyone. And while he says some changes have been made in Australia's military culture as a result of his evidence, he's adamant that fundamental reform is still urgently needed.

I spoke to Peter Cabban in The World Today studio earlier today.

Let's start with the time that you eventually decided there was nothing for it but to confront Duncan Stevens about his behaviour. Can you describe what happened and his response?

PETER CABBAN: Well, the confrontation was in Tokyo. He was lying in his bunk, which…on a (inaudible) pillow, and he had just been told that he had to hand command of the ship over to me for five days and he was crimson with rage.

And I asked him if I had permission to inform the Admiral of my command, because that was the correct thing to do and he said that he would have me arrested immediately, charged with mutiny.

And I was angry as well, and I said that if he ever had a drink at sea I would draw a pistol and shoot him, because I wasn't going to allow him to kill my crew, which I was sure he was going to.

ELEANOR HALL: That's a fairly extraordinary confrontation, isn't it?

PETER CABBAN: It was, but it was an extreme situation. We were going to sea in a typhoon and seven days later in Subic Bay he had found that during the five days he was incarcerated I had conducted punishment parades and signed them and tried to get them out of the ship as evidence that I had command, and he in the meantime had got all the officers to support him except David Martin and was going to have me certified and transported home unconscious in a straight jacket and my mind destroyed by ECT (Electro-Convulsive Therapy).

And if you're in the Pacific Ocean alongside a jungle, anchored alongside a jungle and someone threatens you with that and you know that he has all the power in the world, you take it very seriously and I knew that he was absolutely serious.

ELEANOR HALL: It wasn't long after that that you left the Voyager and indeed resigned from the Navy and it was also a relatively short time before the disaster. How tough a decision was it for you to leave the Navy?

PETER CABBAN: I loved the Navy and it was heartbreaking, but I realised that I didn't want to continue to serve with officers like him and those who'd covered up for him. I couldn't do it.

ELEANOR HALL: There was already a cover up, wasn't there, because you wanted to do the right thing and inform the Admiral of your command and you weren't able to do it. Did it shock you that the other officers didn't support you?

PETER CABBAN: Yes, I confronted three of them in the ward room in Singapore and asked them why they had supported the Captain and they were adamant that their loyalty was totally to the Captain. I challenged them and said why? What about the crew, what about the Navy? And they said no, the Captain has our loyalty first.

ELEANOR HALL: Now, what was your reaction when your wife called you to tell you of the accident?

PETER CABBAN: Absolute horror. I knew it was Voyager even though she wasn't sure, and that night I was in an isolated chalet in Khancoban and I didn't go to bed, I sat throughout the night reliving the events, particularly those in Subic Bay where the Captain made that terrible threat, and I realised that I'd put my family's and my own welfare and safety above the crew and I felt that if I'd done something else they might all have been alive.

ELEANOR HALL: What else could you have done, though?

PETER CABBAN: Well, I didn't know. I was irrational at that time and I felt that I should've taken the risk, but subsequently I know that it would've happened, what he was threatening.

ELEANOR HALL: And you also it seems, had a sense of inevitability about an accident if he stayed in command?

PETER CABBAN: I formed that… I developed that conviction, I should say, in the inland sea of Japan when we'd had a very near miss and I'd been assessing his conduct and attitude for several months at that stage and I anticipated that he was totally losing control of himself and he didn't care. And I felt that it was inevitable that there would be a collision and the ship would be lost.

ELEANOR HALL: So, in the investigation that followed, what did you think of the conduct of senior naval officers?

PETER CABBAN: Well, it was obviously orchestrated and they were determined that the truth shouldn't come out. There are so many documents missing, I mean, it's unbelievable that six copies of one document distributed to the Royal Navy, to the Embassy, to the Naval Board, to the Flagship and even the original completely disappeared. Even the ship's deck log for the month of June, when I had my five days of command disappeared.

ELEANOR HALL: And why do you think that so many senior naval people backed Duncan Stevens even after he was dead?

PETER CABBAN: I don't think they were backing Duncan Stevens so much there as covering themselves, because there was enough knowledge, particularly from Tokyo, to have resulted in his removal from the ship, if not Court Marshalled.

ELEANOR HALL: So they were covering their tracks for not having removed him previously. What do you think it is about the culture in the Navy that has stopped them acting against these sorts of misbehaviours?

PETER CABBAN: Well, I think that goes right back in history, but I think that the way in which officers are selected and promoted fosters that.

It's rather like the public school system in England; it's a boys club and you stick together and keep everything in-house and I think everyone was concerned that Duncan should be protected.

Of course his father's influence would be wide-ranging too, but within the Navy itself there was that culture.

ELEANOR HALL: And yet, you were different?

PETER CABBAN: Yes, I'm afraid I was always a little out of step.

ELEANOR HALL: Now, there was one other officer that you mentioned a little while ago, David Martin. He was later to be Governor of New South Wales. Now, he was one officer that you graded as exception just before you left the Navy. Were you disappointed with the evidence he gave?

PETER CABBAN: I was appalled. I had relied on David Martin and in fact the Counsel for the Crown made the comment to my counsel afterwards that if Martin had told the truth the Royal Commission would've finished in two weeks and my family saved of a lot of grief.

ELEANOR HALL: Does it surprise you still that a man of his calibre would've done that at that time?

PETER CABBAN: I don't suppose it does anymore because I'm more philosophical, but I saw so much of it I was surprised and delighted when one or two officers told the truth regardless, particularly Errol Stevens (phonetic) from (inaudible), my opposite number, had obviously stalled his career at the rank of Captain.

ELEANOR HALL: Now you were not called to give evidence in the first inquiry, but you were at the centre of the second. A friend warned you at that time, they'll destroy you. Did you have a real sense then of what that could mean?

PETER CABBAN: Yes. I didn't know why, because all I knew was that there was something in the background that was going to be terrible and would be brought out during the inquiry, and it's ironical because the one weapon the Navy and the Stevens family thought they had to destroy my credibility, they produced documents that even the Crown didn't know existed - that was the Punishment Returns, and they didn't realise of course they were falsified.

ELEANOR HALL: And so how hard…how tough was it during that second Royal Commission for you?

PETER CABBAN: I wouldn't put anyone else through it.

ELEANOR HALL: That was one of my question to you… I was going to come to actually, was how would you advise any young military officer who might come to you today saying that they were considering becoming a whistle-blower on some aspect of the system. Would you encourage them to go ahead?

PETER CABBAN: I think if they're… if they had the same compulsion I did, which was irresistible, they'd have to, but they should prepare by making sure they had a lot of evidence and that they had the confidence of powerful people.

ELEANOR HALL: To what extent do you think these negative aspects of the culture of the Australian Armed Services have changed since then?

PETER CABBAN: Cosmetically I think, but… I remember that I was told that Admiral Sir Victor Smith said it was the best thing that had happened to the Navy and they did make some changes, but when you look at the circumstances of recent naval tragedies, but particularly where alcohol's been involved in the lower deck, it's worse. It's almost ritualistic now that they're entitled to some alcohol at sea.

ELEANOR HALL: Now we've also recently had a Senate Inquiry into the deaths of a number of young servicemen and women, the suicides of some of them too, which recommended wholesale change in the military justice system.

How much confidence do you have that that system, that that sort of military culture can change for the better?

PETER CABBAN: It won't change at all unless there's outside intervention. I think it should be a joint military and civilian authority exercise to determine how it should change. I don't think there are any fast answers, but I think it should be researched and planned very carefully.

ELEANOR HALL: Look, it's a terrific book. Thank you very much for coming in.

PETER CABBAN: Thank you, Eleanor.

ELEANOR HALL: Peter Cabban is the former Second in Command on the Voyager and was the central witness in that crucial second Royal Commission in to the disaster. His book, Breaking Ranks is being launched tomorrow at Sydney's Maritime Museum.